Gilmore evolving ND football team's greatest unknown — the D-line

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND —The biggest dose of culture shock for new Notre Dame defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, and a welcome one at that, did not come from his own position group.

It was provided courtesy of the Irish offensive line.

Gilmore coached against that group last Oct. 11, when his North Carolina team visited Notre Dame Stadium in an eventual 50-43 Irish survival of the Tar Heels.

“That game kind of got out of control, so I kind of lost my mind,” Gilmore said Monday with a laugh, of the highest-scoring game in ND Stadium history, and one that netted a combined 57 first downs and 1,019 yards of total offense.

“Working with them (the O-line) every day (now), they’re a lot more physical than I would have thought. I kind of thought of them as more of a passing/finesse-type team.

“But now after practicing against these guys every day, I see they really can come off the ball and be physical at the point of attack.”

Gilmore’s mission this spring, with only a Wednesday walk-through and Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game remaining, has been to coax that kind of transformation out of his own guys, easily the biggest unknown of all the Irish position groups heading into the 2015 season, just as it was in 2014, before he arrived.

There are plenty of bodies, swelling to 18 when incoming freshmen Brandon Tiassum, Elijah Taylor and Bo Wallace — and perhaps exiled senior end Ishaq Williams — are tacked onto the roster in June.

But so many of a group that comprises more than 20 percent of ND’s total scholarship players are trying to move away from being inexperienced, one-dimensional or both, as Gilmore is tasked with a mass player-development project.

That project started, though, with some common ground between Gilmore and the group of largely unfinished products.

“When it comes to football and young men, that’s not an issue,” said Gilmore, a 30-year coaching veteran with a history of coaching with Irish head coach Brian Kelly but rejoining him for the first time since 2008. “I’ve been doing this a long time.

“I’m very comfortable coaching the position, but just learning the defense and being able to help them in that respect and just knowing the ins and outs of what the defense was all about, that was my biggest challenge.”

Teaching him the complex, blitz-heavy, nuance-laden defense has been second-year Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, Gilmore’s college teammate at Wayne State, where Gilmore played defensive end and VanGorder inside linebacker in the early to mid ’80s.

“It was a lot like it is now — him bossing me around,” Gilmore said with a chuckle. “No, it was good. We had a good time. We played hard and worked hard, and not much has changed. He’s the same guy in that respect. He was that dynamic leader as a player and same way as a coach.”

The conceptual part of the defense the two now coach in versus the one in which they played are worlds apart.

“It’s a lot more diverse than what I’ve been used to,” said Gilmore, whose coaching path last crossed with VanGorder’s 21 seasons ago, at their alma mater. “It’s been a lot of fun for me to learn some new things in football. I think that we have answers for a lot of things. I think it taxes the kids and makes them learn the game.

“It’s a little bit more detailed than a lot of college football teams, but you’ve got to pay attention to the little things. There are some nuances that you have to coach up. But I think it’s a good deal. I like it.”

As far as personnel, the best thing to like was something that occurred a few weeks before Gilmore was added to the payroll. The one player on the defensive line with proven star power, senior-to-be defensive tackle Sheldon Day, elected to remain at Notre Dame in 2015 rather than cannonballing into the NFL Draft pool.

Only in the last week, though, did Gilmore get his first live look at the line with Day in it at full speed. Up until then, the 6-foot-2, 285-pounder was held out of contact drills and scrimmages as a precautionary measure following a knee injury late last season.

“Exciting,” Gilmore said of the full-go, full-tilt version of Day. “He brings that leadership to us, and he’s a good football player. He makes some plays for us. He gets other guys around him to play hard and play better.”

Other key figures to emerge so far are junior-to-be defensive end Isaac Rochell, universally touted among the Irish coaches as ND’s most improved pass-rusher, 19-year-old senior-to-be Romeo Okwara at the other end spot, freshman prodigy Jerry Tillery at both inside spots, and sophomore-to-be Andrew Trumbetti at both edge spots.

Sophomore-to-be Jay Hayes, who put on 20 pounds over the winter to get to 285 on a 6-3 frame, has gained some traction recently at defensive tackle.

Gilmore mentioned redshirted freshman Jonathan Bonner and sophomore-to-be Daniel Cage were surging into the picture too when each suffered an injury. Senior-to-be Jarron Jones, the 2014 starter at nose guard, is still recovering from December foot surgery and will have to overtake Tillery in the fall to keep that status.

“The thing with Jerry is he has enough athleticism in that once he does get high, he can reload himself and re-leverage himself and get back into a good football position,” Gilmore said of the 6-7, 300-pound early enrollee.

“He’s an exceptional athlete that way, where he can start off bad and then it ends up OK, just because of his athleticism.

“He’s kind of a one-mistake guy, which is a really good thing in football. He’s a really good student, a smart kid. The thing that I see that I’m really excited about is that he doesn’t get rattled. Like a lot of young kids, they make a mistake and you rip their tails, they go in the tank.

"He doesn’t do that. He shakes his head, ‘OK coach, I’ve got it.’ And (he) goes to the next play and acts like nothing ever happened. That’s a big plus for him.”

The plan in September moving forward is a rotation of eight to 10, with the hope that academically suspended Ishaq Williams is one of them.

“I’ve seen him on film,” Gilmore said of the 2014 projected starter with whom Kelly is expected to meet later this month about the player’s future. “I’m not sure how that’s going to all play out, so I’m preparing as if he’s not (coming back). But if he is, I’ll be glad to embrace that.”

Just as he embraces the players who aren’t projecting into the rotation this season, but who could emerge in future seasons. Among those with a perceived high ceiling, and yet the one with perhaps greatest distance between that potential and the reality of the moment, is sophomore-to-be Jhonny Williams.

Teammates raved about the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Benton Harbor product’s speed and raw ability last August in training camp, but the challenge for Williams at this juncture is that his talent remains largely raw.

“His biggest thing is to get in his playbook and understand what he’s doing a little bit more and just spend a little more time in learning football,” Gilmore said of the later bloomer in high school.

“There’s a big learning curve, just learning the nuances and learning the defenses and that sort of thing, learning how to play with leverage and being a physical football player. He plays like an athlete, like a basketball kid that you juke around and play high.

“He needs to be a real football player as opposed to an athlete just playing football. Young men mature at different rates and, for whatever reason, the light comes on at different times, but he has that length, he has that physical ability. We’ll just keep working with him, and hopefully it happens soon.”

Effort is his biggest ally, according to Gilmore. The same can be said for the others pushing for a spot in the fall rotation. Pass rush, for instance, he said is mostly about desire.

“With young guys just learning how to be mentally and physically tough every day is probably the toughest thing,” Gilmore said. “Those guys have talent, but on the D-line, it’s not a lot of fun some days.

“You’ve got to play with bad hands, and your shoulders are hurting and all those sorts of things. But I’ve seen a lot of growth, a lot of improvement from all those guys.”

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Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (left) and defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, former college teammates, are back together again. this time trying to develop the Irish defense. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)